Thursday, April 13, 2006

Few Answers

Sarah E. Mendelson, writing - in 2002 - about Strobe Talbott's memoirs:
There was, in short, a central inconsistency in the Clinton administration's approach to Russia. Washington's tolerance for Russian noncompliance with democratic values, norms, laws, and treaties was often breathtaking. This was especially true regarding Chechnya. If Clinton and his staff believed (correctly) that Russia's political trajectory affected U.S. national security, why did the death and destruction wrought by Russian federal forces in Chechnya figure so little in their engagement?

The human cost of the Chechen conflict has been horrific, causing deaths in the tens of thousands. The abuses are ongoing and well documented. Highly respected organizations have evidence that Russian federal forces have clearly and repeatedly violated both the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Russian and Western organizations have documented the disproportionate use of force, the indiscriminate targeting of civilians, and the "mop-up" operations that regularly involve looting, ransom, rape, and execution. They have detailed the forced disappearances of up to 2,000 people and noted the "filtration camps" where rebels and civilians are routinely tortured. There is even evidence that human rights monitors are being targeted and killed by federal forces. The scale of abuses is far greater than in Kosovo, where NATO intervened. Moreover, the wars in Chechnya have had a symbiotic and deleterious influence on developments in the Russian media and bear directly on Russia's political transition and Western efforts to support democracy there.

Talbott does not shy away from these details. He recognizes the wars as threats to democracy in Russia; in contrast to some apologists, he also acknowledges that the U.S. Civil War is a poor analogy. He sees critics as justified in charging that the Clinton administration gave "Moscow a pass on the military's continuing rampage in Chechnya." So why did Talbott's misgivings have essentially no effect on the U.S.-Russia relationship?

The book hints at a few reasons, the most prominent being Clinton's reluctance to "pile-on against Yeltsin." According to Talbott, Clinton was "not comfortable about hectoring" the Russians to seek a political solution "when we didn't really know what that meant." He was reluctant to use his personal relationship with Yeltsin to push him hard on the war, and then when Putin came on the scene, there was little chemistry between the two. Putin dismissed the substantial body of evidence of war crimes committed by Russian forces as "alleged, mythical atrocities," and Clinton let it go.

This inaction is regrettable on so many different levels. The second Chechen campaign began after a series of grisly bombings of apartment buildings in September 1999; mysteriously, the crime scenes were cleared within days and, in one case, even hours. A foiled bombing in the city of Ryazan, which seemed to involve the FSB (the KGB's successor), raised serious questions as to precisely who was responsible for the other bombings. But despite the lack of hard evidence, Moscow blamed the attacks on Chechen separatists and used the incidents as the launching pad for the war -- and eventually as an election strategy. What did the Clinton administration make of all this? This book provides few answers.

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